Joe Duffy: ‘I give a platform to people who don’t have one’

The RTÉ host is proud of his radio show and doesn’t dwell on anti-Liveline snobbery

When Joe Duffy was a child in Ballyfermot he came upon two adult neighbours having a row. He did what Joe Duffy does to this day. He got involved. "I interrupted. I remember saying, 'No, you said Mr Carroll was here at 10 o'clock.' " He laughs. "My mother called me in, and she larruped me for being cheeky to my elders."

He was basically doing his show on the street? "Yeah." He hasn't thought about this for a while. He remembers something else. "When I was in St Mary's Youth Club the [television host] Bunny Carr was up to give a talk, but it was for the senior section, and I was in the junior section . . . They wouldn't let me in, and I argued at the door, and I remember one of the team leaders saying, 'Would you go home, Duffy, you're only a wet sack of potatoes.' And I remember slinking off home. I was devastated, by the way. I must have been, because I can still remember the phrase, 40 years later."

He wanted to be involved? “Oh yeah. Yeah. I wanted to be involved.”

Nowadays Joe Duffy is very involved. There isn't a problem in Ireland that does not potentially involve Liveline, the show he has hosted on RTÉ Radio 1 for 17 years. I've interviewed him before, shortly after his leg was shattered in a car accident, in 2009, but he seemed understandably more downbeat then. "I crashed and then the country crashed," he says. He seems brighter and more relaxed today, eagerly diving into tangents about the history of Marino, the part of Dublin where I live, and showing me a photograph of a landscape he painted by way of explaining where he lives in Clontarf.


“That’s great,” I say.

“Ah, you can almost see the numbers under the paint,” he says.

“I never woke up hungry”

Duffy grew up in one room on Mountjoy Square before moving, at the age of four, to a house in Ballyfermot, in the west of the city. “We were a very poor, ordinary Dublin working-class family,” he says, but he’s keen not to dwell on the downsides of this. “I never woke up hungry . . . thanks to my mother and father.”

Still, it wasn't easy. One of his brothers developed addiction issues – we don't talk about this today – and his father had a drink problem. "Yeah. I put that in the book" – his 2011 autobiography – "and he was in England a lot for work. But he was a good worker. Five and a half days each week . . . He had a little statue of St Joseph the Worker, and he stood before it every morning. And I'd come down and listen to the sound of O'Donnell Abú with him, the thing that opened RTÉ at 6am."

He sighs. “Yes, he took a drink, and he died at 58, which is shocking . . . I see it today when I go up to Ballyer – the people standing outside the pubs, smoking. The health outcomes for working-class people are so much different.”

Nobody wakes up and says, 'I'm unequal'. I would have become conscious of that in Trinity on the dining-hall steps, when people slagged my Matt Merrigan accent

When did he become conscious of his class? "When I went to Trinity," he says. "I remember them slagging my accent. You don't wake up in the morning feeling unequal. Nobody wakes up and says, 'I'm unequal.' I would have become conscious of that in Trinity on the dining-hall steps, when people slagged my Matt Merrigan accent. Do you remember Matt Merrigan? He was a Dublin trade unionist. 'Oh, you and your Matt Merrigan accent.' I was never conscious of it up til then."

Duffy went to Trinity College Dublin after becoming the first in his family to do the Leaving Cert and after a few years working as a "jumped-up messenger boy" for an advertising agency. He had a "sweet, innocent" desire to "do good", he says, so wanted to become a social worker. The only way to do that was to go to college.

What did his parents think of this? “My father was disappointed, because I gave up a job, and that income wasn’t coming into the house,” he says. “My mam said, ‘Let him go.’ He paid the fees himself. “My only [other] expenditure was the bus fare . . . Bizarrely, I couldn’t have gone to Trinity if I wasn’t living in Ballyfermot, because it was on the bus route.”

Did having his accent mocked politicise him? "The thing that did politicise me in Trinity was reading about life chances; how your life chances depend on where you were born. In Dublin you were 44 times more likely to go to third level if you were from Mount Merrion than if you were from Ballyfermot . . . I became involved in trying to highlight that injustice."

He became president of the students’ union and was associated for a time with left-wing politics. What did his family think? “My father was slightly embarrassed by my radicalism,” he says. “He was very interested in politics, but he was very mainstream politically.”

RTÉ job

After college Duffy became a probation officer, but he found it frustrating. He and his colleagues were trying to set up projects for joyriders. “We were being knocked back every time.” He needed a change, and then one day he saw an advertisement for a training course at RTÉ.

At the interview he said, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t know how to use a tape recorder. My voice, as you know, is not the voice of Irish radio by any stretch . . . What I can offer you is difference. I’m a social worker, qualified family therapist, probation officer. I’m from Ballyfermot, and I have different networks, a different outlook on life.”

Subsequently one of the panellists said they’d talked about him and said, “There’s 20 positions. Let’s give one to an outlier and see.”

Duffy felt out of his depth. “I think I cried when I went home,” he says. “I had to give up the job in probation services, and I remember literally shaking with fear at what I had done and what was ahead of me . . . I had no sense of the technology . . . I was from a completely different world.”

A little while later he was doing an outside broadcast in London for Pat Kenny's show. Gay Byrne stopped him in a corridor afterwards to compliment him and then poached him for his own programme. "I'd met Gay before, actually," Duffy says, "in 1966. I got his autograph, but he keeps denying his knowledge of it . . . I had gone up to get my new school bag with my mother and my auntie, and I can still smell the leather from the shop in Moore Street. He had a leather satchel under his arm, which he still has, and he was going to his Triumph Herald. I said it to him again the other day, and he said, 'I was not. I was going to my Triumph Spitfire.' "

He scoffs at the idea that he had any ambition to be a presenter. There was an RTÉ voice, he says, and he did not have it. “If I announced the death of Éamon de Valera, de Valera himself wouldn’t believe it.”

On Byrne's show Duffy became a familiar broadcasting voice nonetheless, and at the turn of the century he replaced Marian Finucane on Liveline. "Marian was going to the nine-o'clock slot, and [his then boss, Helen Shaw, warned that] the first JNLR headlines would say that Marian was triumphant and that your figures are down – Liveline Diveline – but that didn't happen . . . It became the second-most-listened-to programme on national radio."

Why? Liveline gives people a voice, he says. "But it's only a radio programme. I'm not a doctor . . . I don't drive an ambulance. I say it in our house when the phone rings. 'Hang on, lads, we're not a fire station. Don't be panicked!' "

People do treat Liveline like an emergency service, though. "Yes," he says. "And I see that as an enormous privilege. People put their trust in you. One of the reasons I say that we have to have our numbers up [is] because it only works when the numbers are up . . . I do believe in the power of the crowd, the wisdom of the crowd."

Ahead of the curve

They're ahead of the curve on a lot of issues, Duffy says. He recalls the panic in 2008 when the authorities were assuring people that the banks were fine and that deposits were insured up to €30,000. "We were deluged with calls saying, 'I've got 90 grand. It's my pension in the bank, and I'm going to take it out and put it in the post office' . . . The first call was from a postmaster who said, 'I've queues out the door with people moving their money from the banks' . . . The punters knew the banks were dodgy before the politicians did. That was the week that Brian Lenihan rang the director general to complain we were causing a panic."

How did that feel? “It was the most bizarre sequence,” he says. “I was at home, and I got this phone call from the then head of radio, who had announced his retirement that day . . . I’d texted him a message, saying ‘Best of luck and good health,’ and I thought he was ringing to say thanks. I’ve a very dodgy phone signal on the terrace in Clontarf where we live. It’s dreadful . . . and it was a garbled phone call, and I made nothing of it.

"Then the Sunday papers said that it was the worst broadcast in Irish banking history and Lenihan was fuming and Dick Roche said I should be sacked, and it was only then I thought, That's what he was ringing me about!" He laughs. "A number of papers said we didn't cover it as robustly on the Friday, but we had no instruction from management on what to do or what not to do."

If people want to talk in their droves about Ryanair or A&E then you have to do it . . . Our job is to give a platform to people who don't have a platform

He and his team are led by the listeners, he says, not by Government Ministers or the editors of national newspapers. "Some days the sluice gates open," Duffy says. "If people want to talk in their droves today about Ryanair or A&E then you have to do it . . . I was very clear early on that our job was to give a platform to people who don't have a platform. So I'm reluctant to have politicians or journalists on. I say, 'Could they not get on Sean O'Rourke or Morning Ireland?' Our space is limited. I don't go on about my kids and what I did last night because that 75 minutes is precious to the people who listen."

What makes a good show? “How animated it was. Whether we made a difference.”

He doesn’t always think they get it right, although he won’t be drawn on times they got it wrong. They do a postmortem every day, and he often self-flagellates. “Why didn’t I say this? or, Why did I say that?”

Does he ever think, “This person is a crank”? “I’ve never taken a dislike to a caller,” he says. “I’m telling you this genuinely. Never. I think it’s my disposition . . . I can’t believe people are ringing me.”

Hiding behind PR firms

He is often moved or angered by what he hears on the show. He tries not to show what he's feeling, he says, but sometimes it comes across nonetheless. He recalls a recent call from Jacinta Fleming, who was dying from cancer and with whom the Department of Social Protection was quibbling over disability benefit. "That was the week we were doing backflips over not paying the €12 billion for Apple, and I just lost it," he says. "On the one hand the State is saying she's not worth €12,000, and on the other we're paying the best lawyers in Sir John Rogerson's Quay to say we don't want this €12 billion."

He has known heartache himself. His brother Brendan struggled with addiction, though Duffy stresses that Brendan is “well now”. He hates how drugs have ravaged working class communities and he is very anti legalisation. “A lot of that is shaped by my lived experience.”

And then his brother Aidan died in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 25.   “I remember the time he was born. I would have been ten the following week and he was born upstairs and I could hear his first cries.” He pauses. “And then he was killed in a car crash… My mother mentions him every single day... He was her youngest.”

How did it affect Duffy himself? “It’s a wound. I think in some senses it helps me when dealing with people on Liveline who’ve had deeply traumatic experienced… I can find some of the language… It’s a wound that won’t heal but maybe it will salve over the years.”

It’s not all life or death stuff on Liveline, he says, and what takes off on the show isn’t always predictable. “Yesterday – right at the end, 90 seconds to go – we had this caller talking about how Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross had taken out a statue of Our Lady from the communal area . . . It was 90 seconds, but the number of people who stopped me yesterday evening to talk about it.” (He gets stopped a lot, apparently.)

How has Ireland changed in his time at RTÉ? “As a democracy we’re much more participative, much more politically literate than most nationalities, and more engaged in political discourse. There’s a greater sense you can engage in civic society and can influence corporations or institutions.”

On the other hand he's disappointed by the way big institutions increasingly hide behind big PR firms. (A notable exception, he says, is Michael O'Leary of Ryanair, with whom he has had a few on-air run-ins.) "The minute you ring them they refer you to this high-powered PR company, and then you get this bland statement," he says. "PR companies are the bane of my life . . . The way they make their living is by telling people not to go on Liveline . . . We get a lot of written complaints from them, and they have to be dealt with by our small team . . . There's a whole system in place since Mission to Prey which is more suited to Prime Time, which has a bigger team and goes out twice a week."

He recalls a number of issues raised on Liveline where the institutions involved would comment only on more traditional current-affairs shows. "There's a bit of snobbishness about Liveline." Does that bother him? "I wouldn't dwell on it too much. You kind of have to take a lot of stuff on the chin, haven't you? Come on, get over it, Joe."

“Some stuff is dangerous for us”

He listens to a lot of radio. “From 5.50am to 10.10pm. I have two iPads. I’m like a member of the French Resistance in the loft in Normandy, monitoring broadcasts.”

He also keeps an eye on Twitter and sees similarities between the work Liveline does and the way momentum builds up around issues such as sexual harassment on social media. Could he have seen Liveline taking a lead on something like the sexual-harassment allegations at the Gate Theatre? "Some of that stuff is dangerous for us," he says, "because we're live. There's no delay . . . We have got to be careful."

He's talking about libel. Libel is a continuous threat on a free-flowing live phone-in show like Liveline. Every day he has a ritual, he says. "I go into the loo at 1.30pm to wash my face, do a few vocal exercises and say two words to myself: 'libel' and 'entertainment'."

There's an inbuilt class bias. People presume when they say things like, 'When people are driving to the supermarket'. My mother has never driven to the supermarket

He's protective of RTÉ. He talks about how hard his colleagues work and how seriously they take their public-service remit. Does he worry about things like the gender pay gap? "Yeah. It is an issue that RTÉ say they are going to sort. The Liveline team has been predominantly female . . . It's a good organisation, I think, for introspection and dealing with issues . . . I know on a lot of things now we all have to check ourselves and check our privilege . . . The whole gender pay row. The harassment thing . . . And we should also check ourselves on class bias. There's an inbuilt class bias in public discourse. People presume when they say things like, 'When people are driving to the supermarket . . .' My mother has never driven to the supermarket. There are a lot of people who don't have cars . . . We have to check ourselves, and I think we will be a better society because of it."

Would he get involved with politics? He has been asked in the past, but he's not really interested. "I am involved in politics with a small 'p'. All politics isn't in Dáil Éireann. I see Liveline as part of the democratic discourse."

Twenty-two-year-old triplets

Outside of work he relaxes by painting and writing. He is working on two books, one about the child victims of the Troubles, the other "a ramble" through the geography and local history of Dublin, which he is illustrating with his own paintings. His life is busy, he says. His 88-year-old mother is still healthy. "She does the church collection," he says, then channels Liveline's Funny Friday for a moment. "She doesn't hand them in, now. When she came back from the Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas I said, 'Where did you get the money for another tattoo?' " He laughs – and, God help me, so do I.

He has 22-year-old triplets. “It’s like having one 66-year-old in the house,” he says. His daughter recently graduated as a teacher, and he seems to have become her proud assistant. “All I do is laminate. My fingers are burnt off me. I draw signs for her for the classroom.” The two boys are finishing degrees at Trinity. Recently one of them worked on the customer-service desk in a big shop in town and regularly faced disgruntled people whose default threat was, “I’m ringing Joe Duffy. He said he felt like giving them my mobile number.”

  • Liveline is on RTÉ Radio 1 from Monday to Friday at 1.45pm